Sassoon re-appraised by World War 2 Serving Poets

Painting of Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

‘Silent Service’-Siegfried Sassoon

Now, mulltifold, let Britain’s patient power
Be proven within us for the world to see,
None are exempt from service in this hour:
And vanquished in ourselves we dare not be.
Now, for a sunlit future, we can show
The clenched resolved endurance that defies
Daemons in dark,-and toward that future go
With earth’s defended freedom in our eyes,
In every separate soul let courage shine-
A kneeling angel holding faith’s front -line

May 23rd, 1940

‘Silent Service’ seems to be so lacking in passion compared with Sasoon’s earlier work. Especially considering the poet’s status. Sassoon was one of the most rated war poets of World War one, and his poetry, semi-autobiographical prose, and his 1917 declaration against the continuation of World War 1 must rank him high in those who have contributed to the popular ‘Disenchantment’ view of World War one : The view that either Britain should have remained neutral or the cost of the victory was simply far too high in terms of casualties, which remains widely held today.

Yet Sassoon as a writer was simply ill prepared for World War 2 . His prose writing at the time was charming and nostalgic such as ‘The Old Century and Seven More Years’ (1938). Sassoon wrote few poems about World War 2 that were ever published, whilst the ones that emerged are largely ignored. This was not the case of all World War 1 poets. The World War 2 poetry of both Herbert Read, H.D., Constance Renshaw, and Vera Brittain are still anthologised in collections relating to either World War. Robert Graves established quite a creative rapport with Alun Lewis, Edmund Blunden with Keith Douglas, so it was also possible for a World War 1 poet to connect with younger serving poets.

There are reasons why Sassoon was out of sync at the start of World War 2. He was living the life of a country gentleman in Wiltshire being faced with the prospect of having to take in evacuees. His marriage was failing, he had started to back away from his public endorsement of the Peace Pledge Union and simply let his membership dues lapse when World War 2 broke out.

Yet Sassoon’s long term reputation was to survive : I was lucky enough to hear a programme originally broadcast for Sassoon’s 80th birthday ( 8th September 1966) by BBC radio ‘Home Service from the West’ in 1966, via the British Library Sound Archives. Presented by World War 2 serving poet Vernon Scannell, who praised Sassoon

It was the war poets and particularly Sassoon who gave us the key to the world our fathers had known.

Vernon Scannell ‘s father , James Bain, served during World War one ; I’ve not managed to find the exact details of his service. Scannell’s childhood and youth were blighted by his father’s violence .

Fellow poet Charles Causley contributed to said programme.

But in the work of Sassoon, I suddenly say that by using common speech in some magical way, he turned into the memorable and the most moving accounts of what really happened to people in war. He enabled us, somehow or other, to take part in the Second World War without the terrible possibility of disillusionment which crippled so many millions of people in the First World War. I think he made it clear more than historian certainly more than any journalist and most certainly more than any politician. It was the poet who said quite clearly what the score was.

Causley’s father served in the 2nd Wessex Division of the Royal Army Driver Service corp, contracted T.B. as a consequence of phosphorous gas, and invalided out of the Forces in 1919. He never recovered his health and died on 31st March 1924, when Charles Causley was five years old.

Vernon Scannell and Sassoon met only once, but Charles Causley visited Sassoon a number of times at his home in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Furthermore, a collection of Sassoon’s recent poetry with the title ‘Octave’ was published to coincide with Sassoon’s 80th birthday. This was funded via an appeal backed by a whole range of poets including : John Masefield, Edmund Blunden, C.Day Lewis, Roy Fuller, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, R.S.Thomas. Charles Causely wrote the introduction with more praise to Sassoon.

Above all living writers, his were the poems that first leapt at me from the page. After I had left school, and the advancing shadow of the Second World War steadily darkened the nineteen-thirties, Sassoon’s were the poems that I learnt by heart ….

Welsh poet Vernon Watkins, served with RAF intelligence in World War 2 and stated in ;

Siegfried Sassoon is the one poet emerging from the First World War to become the prophet of the Second..

One less enthusiastic voice was that of Royal Navy serving poet Alan Ross (1922-2007), writing in his autobiography , ‘Blindfold Games’ about the poetry that he was reading in the late 1930’s

Sassoon and Blunden, as once Rupert Brooke, fulfilled one kind of need, but their later poetry seemed archaic and dull compared to Auden.

Yes perhaps Ross was being too harsh. Andrew Marr in his ‘We British -The Poetry of a People’ highlighted the impact of World War 1 poetry.

In short, 1915 dragged English poetry from 1852 to about 1950 in one angry, impatient lurch. The war changed almost everything about Britain, and that included its relationship to poetry.

Alan Ross was possibly the greatest ‘War at Sea’ poet. He hated the sea, which is not surprising after serving on Arctic Convoy JW51B at the end of 1942. Ross had the ability to evoke the horror and claustrophobia of sea warfare set in a hostile and bleak natural environment. Yes also the talent to record the conversation of sailors of all ranks. Vernon Scannell highlighted this fact in his work on World War 2 poetry ‘Not Without Honour’ by noticing the influence of Sassoon and Owen in Ross’ poem ‘Survivors’.

But soon they joke, easy and warm,
As men will who have died once
Yet somehow were able to find their way-
Muttering this was not included in their pay.

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning
With cracked images, they won’t forget
The confusion and the oily dead,
Not yet the casual knack of living.

And this is the key to Sassoon’s legacy to World War 2 poetry. He may not have managed to write striking World War 2 poetry, but this genre could not escape his influence.

Sources :
‘Programme to mark Siegfried Sassoon’s 80th Birthday ‘ BBC Home Service broadcast 9th September 1966.’ British Library Sound Server Jukebox T8557,
‘Not Without Glory-Poets of the Second World War’ Vernon Scannell ,Woburn Press, 1976
‘ Vernon Watkins on Dylan Thomas and Other Poets & Poetry, selected by Gwen Watkins and Jeff Towns’
Parthian, 2013,
‘We British-The Poetry of a People’, Andrew Marr, Fourth Estate, 2015.

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